Q is for Qat

Published April 20, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

Q

Qat is a multi-faceted figure from Melanesian myth.  In most ways he’s a god, or at least a spirit, but in another he seems more or less human.

Qat was born from a stone — one shaped like a vagina, according to one of my sources — which either split open or completely burst apart.  He made islands and created humanity by carving them from wood, and using music to bring them to life.  In this aspect, he’s clearly a creator god.

There are a large number of tales of Qat, but I want to focus on this one:


 

One day, Qat came across a number of bathing sky maidens.  Because the water might have damaged their wings, the maidens had removed them.  Seeing the pile of wings, Qat took a pair and buried it, forcing one maiden to stay behind when the others departed back to the skies.  Left behind with nothing and no one, the sky maiden was helpless, but Qat approached her to console her.  Soon enough, he began wooing her, and made her his wife.  They lived together for many years, seemingly happily, until Qat’s wife accidentally uncovered her buried wings.  As soon as she saw her wings again, she replaced them on her back, and flew away to the skies without a moment’s hesitation.

Qat wasn’t ready to give up his wife so quickly, though.  He knew where to find the roots of the banyan tree in the sky — upon which, apparently, the sky maidens lived.  He tied a rope to an arrow, and fired it into the roots of the floating banyan tree.  Qat climbed up the rope into the sky, and recovered his wife.  But the root his rope was connected to wasn’t strong enough to hold up the weight of both Qat and his wife.  It broke, and Qat plummeted to his death, while his wife simply flew away.


 

Obviously, in that particular story, Qat is anything but a god.  There are also other versions where he doesn’t die from the fall, but sails away in a (flying?) canoe, promising to return someday.

It’s mostly that story I want to talk about in the comparisons (obviously), but I’ll address the earlier parts first, just for a moment or two.  Qat is certainly not the only one to be born from a rock:  while there are probably a vast number of such births, the one that really leaps to my mind is Sun Wukong, probably better known to the English-speaking section of the world by his Japanese name, Son Goku (after whom the Dragonball character was named).

I can’t think of any other creation tale — off-hand — that has humanity carved from wood, but it’s common enough for humans to be the work of handicraft…but actually I’m going to be addressing this again later this month, so I’ll just move on to the main part of the post.

So, the tale of the winged maiden probably struck you as familiar as you were reading it, even if you’re not terribly well versed in folklore or mythology.  And if you are well versed in folklore, you probably thought of a large number of similar tales as soon as you read the first sentence.

These tales are common across the world.  The two that first leapt to my mind as I read the story of Qat’s sky maiden wife were that of the heavenly maiden and that of the selkie…even though with selkies there are no wings, but a seal skin, as the unearthly bride is an oceanic spirit who normally takes the form of a seal.  (The basic story is the same, though, except that the seal skin is usually hidden in a chest in the house, rather than buried.)

As to the heavenly maiden, the story originates in China, and thus has variant versions in Japan and Korea.  (So naturally my familiarity with the subject comes from Japanese and Korean pop culture.  Because how else.)  In the Chinese original, the maiden in question is Zhinü, a daughter of the Jade Emperor.  She has no wings, but a magical robe that allows her to fly between her heavenly home and the earthly realm.  Again, her husband-to-be — in this case a cowherd — comes across her bathing, and hides her robe so she can’t return.  (Why the daughter of the Jade Emperor would want to fly down to earth to bathe in a lake where any old yutz could come across her and see her naked is a question that is likely never answered to anyone’s satisfaction.)  Now, Zhinü does come to love the cowherd, but she also misses her home and her father.  So when she comes across her hidden robe, she decides to put it on and go home for a visit.  However, her father — having been (quite understandably) enraged by the cowherd’s actions — caused a river to flow between the heavens and the earth so that she could never return to earth.  This river appears on earth as the Milky Way.  Zhinü is so broken-hearted at being parted from her beloved husband that even her father feels sorry for her, and once a year he allows the two lovers to meet.  But then he parts them again, because how could the Jade Emperor have a cowherd for a son-in-law?!

This tragic romance has festivals dedicated to it in China, Japan and Korea…but if you’re familiar with the version normally told about the parted lovers for the Japanese Tanabata festival, you won’t notice much in common with this one, apart from the fact that he’s a cowherd, and that they’re separated by the Milky Way.  (Zhinü is actually always a weaver, like in the standard version of the Tanabata tale.  It’s just that it didn’t come up until now, because she’s weaving clouds, and it just seemed a bit unconnected.)  The original version has become a minor variant in Japan.  Because that’s the way folklore works; the more a tale is told and retold, the more it changes, being adapted to the local culture.  (That is, of course, a large part of what makes it so fascinating to study!)

But that’s only one of the parallel stories.  In European traditions, there’s the tale of the swan maiden.  Or rather, there’s the trope of the swan maiden:  there are so many variations that it’s impossible to recount them all.  (Particularly in a single blog post.)  The basic story is the same, but the details are slightly different from the Asian and Melanesian versions.  What the man steals is a robe of swan feathers, which is what allows the swan maiden to fly (and/or to transform into an actual swan), and it’s usually the interference of their children (intentionally or not) that allow the swan maiden to find her robe and fly away from the husband she’s never loved.  Sometimes the husband tries to find her again, but generally he doesn’t bother, due to the impossibility of the task.

There are also all sorts of “animal bride” stories, as well as faerie spouses (male as well as female), but then you start getting into slightly different stories, particularly in terms of how the spouse is gained, and what the human does to lose them.  (At their core, though, they tend to reinforce a “stick to your own kind unless you want to be miserable” lesson that would have been crucial back in the Middle Ages.)

Before I hit “Schedule” on this post (since I’m pre-writing), I want to take a brief moment to address the gender issues of these stories.  Whether the man is Qat, the cowherd, or the random European guy with the swan maiden, in all these tales, he’s won his wife through treachery, deceitfully placing her in an artificial situation where she’s left utterly helpless (and frequently literally naked) and has no choice but to marry him.  Now, on the one hand, most of the versions do specify that the woman falls in love with her husband, but if that’s the case, why would she abandon him at the first opportunity?  (There are exceptions, of course.  In Zhinü’s case, she isn’t abandoning him, as she fully intended to return.  In most of the swan maiden tales, she’s constantly mournful and crying, as she does not love her husband.  And in the case of the selkies — as in most of the faerie tales — it’s more the rules of her people that make her leave when she finds her robe again, rather than an actual desire to leave.)  It’s interesting to note that in the first place I came across the heavenly maiden version of this story — the Korean manwha Faeries’ Landing — when the story was related to the (self-labeled) “tough guy” male lead, his reaction is to be appalled at the behavior of the cowherd, and to say how he can’t blame the poor heavenly maiden for fleeing as soon as she could.  (He says this unaware of the fact that the girl he’s talking to is the offspring of that union, of course.)  It’s aimed at a female readership, of course, so maybe he was only made to say that in order to endear him to the readers, but even so it didn’t feel the least bit unbelievable that even a modern man (er, teenage boy) would be so disgusted by it.  Forcing a marriage like that, in today’s world, is morally reprehensible, even if there aren’t necessarily any laws being broken.  (Depending on how it happened, you could probably call it a form of rape, though.)  That’s probably why the Tanabata myth became something so different, in order to make the cowherd into someone morally praiseworthy, since he’s at the center of such an important and uplifting event.

I don’t really have any strong point to make here; I just didn’t want to post these stories without saying something.  Because on the one hand, what the men in these stories do is reprehensible to our modern mindset.  But on the other hand they’re the product of a different time, a different place, and a different culture, so it’s important not to apply our own mores to them too heavily.  Of course, it’s very possible that the man’s actions were always intended to be seen as indefensible, and that’s why he almost always ends up either alone or dead; folklore often punishes the wrong-doer, after all.

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